Brazil vaccine scandal puts Bolsonaro at risk as protests spread

RIO DE JANEIRO – The twists and turns of a coronavirus vaccine bribe scandal that rocked the Brazilian capital have been worthy of a reality show.

The main stage was a congressional courtroom, where dozens of witnesses shed light on the government’s chaotic response to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 520,000 lives nationwide.

There have been a lot of screaming, a a little crying and a good dose of relentlessness as the audacity and scope of a ploy put in place by officials of the Ministry of Health to solicit bribes from vaccine dealers were brought to light. Outrage drew tens of thousands of Brazilians to protest in several cities on Saturday, the third big wave of protests in recent weeks.

Much of the scandal, which federal prosecutors are investigating, remains unclear and controversial. But the widening of the inquiry is likely to pose a major threat to President Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy for re-election next year – and possibly even his ability to complete the remainder of his term.

At the request of a Supreme Court judge, the attorney general’s office on Friday opened an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s role in the vaccine corruption program. The president is under close scrutiny as part of a deal to get 20 million doses of a vaccine that had not yet completed clinical trials or had not been approved by regulators. He is accused of ignoring a warning that there had been irregularities in the deal.

In addition, a group of 100 lawmakers from a wide range of parties presented draft impeachment articles earlier in the week describing dozens of alleged crimes. They range from the president’s actions aimed at weakening democratic institutions to accounts of neglect and wrongdoing that have hampered Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

Opposition members in Congress say the vaccine scandal has the potential to galvanize street protests of the kind that led to the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

“Every crime committed by the president is serious, but this one is even more serious because it involves lives,” said Joice Hasselmann, congressman from São Paulo who was among Mr. Bolsonaro’s staunchest defenders until now. to what they are arguing in 2019. “Brazil cannot endure another year with Bolsonaro. “

Mr Bolsonaro did not dispute that senior officials in his government may have acted illegally in the vaccine negotiations. But he called the efforts to blame him for the wrongdoing unfair.

“I have no way of knowing what is going on in the ministries,” he told his supporters on Monday. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

On Saturday, the rage over the latest revelations was palpable as tens of thousands took to the streets in a third round of recent protests against the Bolsonaro government.

In downtown Rio de Janeiro, thousands of people marched to the rhythm of drums and chanted “with Bolsonaro!” As activists delivered fiery speeches from sound trucks. A man was holding a large cardboard sign that read, “People only take to the streets in the midst of a pandemic when the government is more dangerous than the virus.” “

Amanda Machado, 45, a veterinarian, wore a grim reaper costume and held a replica of a bloody severed head that had Mr Bolsonaro’s face glued to it.

“It represents my desire,” she said, holding up the bloody prop.

Ms Machado blamed Mr Bolsonaro for the deaths of colleagues, friends and relatives who succumbed to the virus as the president has repeatedly downplayed the risk he posed, cast doubt on vaccines and promoted major gatherings.

“Being here is a risk,” she said. “But we don’t accomplish anything by staying home.”

The vaccine scandal began brewing in June as members of a congressional committee established in April became suspicious of the terms of a $ 316 million deal the government struck to buy 20 million doses of the Indian vaccine Covaxin Covid-19.

The purchase was unusual as Brazil had ignored for months repeated offers from Pfizer, which was offering millions of first doses of its vaccine. The hasty approval of the Covaxin deal was also confusing as the vaccine had not yet completed clinical trials and had not been cleared by Brazil’s health regulator. Its price was exponentially higher than the price announced by the manufacturer earlier this year. And the sale was negotiated through an intermediary.

At the end of June, a lawmaker allied with Mr Bolsonaro, Luis Claudio Miranda, wore a bulletproof vest to offer explosive testimony to Congress. He told lawmakers that he and his brother Luis Ricardo Miranda, a health ministry official, met with Mr Bolsonaro privately in March to warn the president of irregularities in the Covaxin deal. Lawmakers leading a special Covid-19 committee said there was no evidence Mr Bolsonaro asked law enforcement officials to investigate the allegations.

A few days later, Luiz Paulo Dominguetti, an executive of a medical supplies company, told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that the head of logistics at the country’s health ministry, Roberto Ferreira Dias, had sought to negotiate a deal. to buy AstraZeneca vaccine which included a $ 1 per dose.

Next, Mr Dominguetti stunned lawmakers by claiming in a congressional hearing that Mr Miranda, the congressman who denounced the Covaxin deal, had played a role in negotiating the questionable purchase of AstraZeneca . Mr. Miranda has denied having committed any wrongdoing.

As anger over the allegations mounted, Mr Bolsonaro fired Mr Dias, the health ministry official, who denied asking for bribes. The ministry is now seeking to withdraw from the Covaxin deal.

Humberto Costa, a senator who sits on the Covid-19 special committee, said the scandal had undermined Mr Bolsonaro’s image as a fundamentally honest politician, which was crucial for the far-right leader’s victory in 2018.

“The congressional investigation has severely undermined the anti-corruption image of the government and the president,” Mr. Costa said.

As the human and economic toll of the pandemic has devastated Brazilian families over the past 15 months, Bolsonaro’s base has shrunk precipitously, according to surveys. A poll published by the opinion research firm Ipec At the end of last month, Mr Bolsonaro would be defeated by his main political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, if the vote takes place today.

Guilherme Casarões, political analyst and professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, said the president’s growing political isolation made him more radical than conciliatory.

“This may leave him in a more virulent situation” which could lead to democratic collapse, Casarões said. “He has already given clear indications that he does not respect institutions, from the Supreme Court to Congress.”

Danielle Oliveira, a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro, said she had refrained from taking to the streets during the pandemic for fear of catching the virus, but decided to join the crowd on Saturday after receiving the first dose of ‘a vaccine.

“Impeachment at this point does not seem likely,” said Ms Oliveira, 47, who wore a double mask and face shield during the protest. “But if we stay on the streets, that could change.”

As more lawmakers have come to support impeachment, the president has started warning of fraud in next year’s presidential elections, which are set to take place in October 2022. Mr Bolsonaro suggested, without present evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting machines can be easily rigged, and that an electoral loss next year would be the result of fraud.

Mr Bolsonaro has lashed out at the congressional investigation, calling lawmakers “bandits” and saying talking about impeachment is nonsense.

“It is no use provoking us, inventing things, defaming us, attacking us 24 hours a day, because they will do nothing”, he said last weekend. “Only one thing will keep me away from Brasilia: God. “

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